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First drive: Behind the wheel of Peugeot’s 208 GTi

Fun machine: Evoking fond memories of a previous era, the new Pug 208 GTi is a rapid little ripper of a runabout.

Peugeot re-imagines its 1980s hot-hatch icon with $29,990 208 GTi

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19 Apr 2013

LESS is more with Peugeot’s smaller, lighter, and – most importantly – cheaper new baby hot hatch offering, the chic 208 GTi.

To be priced from $29,990 plus on-road costs when it arrives here in August, the long-awaited GTi will be $3500 less expensive than the preceding 207 version was when it died three years ago.

Available only in manual three-door hatchback guise, the French-built light car has its crosshairs set squarely on the Volkswagen Polo GTI, plus the forthcoming Renault Clio Sport and Ford Fiesta ST.

While its VW nemesis with mandatory dual-clutch transmission is $2200 cheaper, Peugeot promises that its ‘little-i’ GTi will pack more equipment – including satellite navigation. More will be revealed closer to the Aussie launch.

Additionally, the 208 GTi has been designed and engineered to connect more closely to its legendary 205 GTi ancestor – the quintessential ‘80s hot hatch that has cast an extremely long and enduring shadow over Peugeot’s successive attempts to replace it.

There’s a certain amount of reliance on the family name. Exactly how it connects, however, might come as a surprise to many.

With its smallness, roundedness, and balanced proportions, the 208 immediately brings to mind not the 205, but the also successful 1998-2007 206 – not coincidentally the most popular Peugeot ever.

Trainspotting prowess is required to pick the newcomer’s true 205 visual keepsakes – jaunty C-pillar with adornment, wheel-at-each-corner stance, arch extensions, and neat tail-light treatments.

Plus, the scalloped-out bodyside motif, sculptured body panels, LED headlights, cab-forward silhouette, and 17-inch alloys are pure modern design points.

Over more proletarian 208s, the GTi features a subtle body kit, different grille with thicker chrome and mesh inserts, small rear spoiler, and unique alloys shod with 205/45 R17 rubber.

Since the GTi is based on the 208, it too benefits from efficient packaging that sees it being smaller on the outside (by about 70mm length-wise and 10mm in height), bigger on the inside, and lighter overall. The 2538mm wheelbase carries over while the tracks are 10mm and 20mm wider front and rear respectively.

Needless to say, the pocket-rocket Peugeot’s return to compactness is a true virtue – particularly when negotiating tight mountain passes with other traffic – while the vast windscreen, deep side windows, and low dashboard cowl help infuse a sense of space inside.

Obviously, the GTi also adopts its donor’s innovative driving position, featuring a lap-sited small steering wheel, high-set instrument cluster, and easy-reach touch controls, for minimal driver distraction and maximum ergonomic efficiency. It doesn’t take long for everything to feel natural.

Vinyl-faced dash top, leather trim, red stitching, sports seats (set 10mm lower), hot-red piping, brushed aluminium trim, and GTi-specific red-lit instrumentation further help differentiate hot hatch from 208 light-car runabout.

But that’s not to suggest the latest Peugeot isn’t light or zippy.

Compared to the 207 GTi, the 1160kg newcomer is a remarkable 90kg lighter, or 100kg if the space-saver spare wheel is removed.

It means the carryover (though heavily modified) BMW co-developed 1.6-litre THP twin-cam direct injection four-cylinder petrol turbo engine with dual variable valve timing is far more effective.

Shared with the Peugeot RCZ sports coupe, outputs are 147kW of power at 5800rpm (207: 128kW) and 275Nm of torque at 1700 (207: 240Nm), helping the 230km/h GTi sling to 100km/h from standstill in 6.8s (0.1s quicker than the VW).

Here are some more numbers. The European consumption average is 5.9 litres per 100km and 139 grams per kilometre for carbon dioxide emissions. The brakes are 302mm vented discs up front and 249mm solid items in the rear. And the drag co-efficiency rating is 0.34 – which is OK for such a stubby and fat wheeled car.

On paper, then, the GTi looks impressive. On the road, the Frenchy feels it – and then some.

Backed up by an exuberant-sounding exhaust system (achieved through the tailored removal of noise deadening material for maximum aural effect), the 1598cc four-pot turbo certainly delivers a snarly soundtrack as it races oh-so-effortlessly past the 6200rpm red line to the cut-out 500rpm later.

More importantly, it thrusts forward just as easily, picking up speed with a similar dogged determination that became one of the 205 GTi’s enduring trademarks.

Yes, that car’s jackhammer jump off the line acceleration is absent. But there is very little lag from the get-go, thanks to a wad of ultra-accessible turbo-driven torque. Believe us, this is a rapid little ripper of a runabout.

No DSG? No worries, we say. The engineers have reduced each gear ratio to assist with engine responses, so plenty of upshifting is a must to minimise the repeated pelting of the limiter. We reckon most entry-level hot hatch fans would welcome the level of interactivity that only a manual can offer.

What we’d like, though, is less lever travel between the ratios some shifts are a bit slow (namely fourth to fifth) and doughy. Those with long memories might recall that the 205’s was much the same here too.

Which leads us to what we really like best about the latest and greatest 208.

Maybe it’s the tiny wheel, or the fast (electrically powered rack and pinion) steering rack, but the Peugeot’s tiller walks a fine line between reaction and refinement that no contemporary can quite match. Aim, point, and POW! It goes exactly where you want. No fat, no delay, and no kickback.

No snap-back either. Quelling oversteer almost completely was central to the NCAP five-star rated 208’s development… something about safety, apparently.

Make no mistake, though. There is a combined alacrity and fluency to the chassis – MacPherson struts up front and a simple torsion beam axle out back – that recalls some of the better French models of olden times – 306, 405, 504. But without the body roll.

Slick and quick, the GTi carves through a corner like it’s tracking along silicon rails.

Special in-house dampers provide a pliancy while 20 per cent stiffer springs, a thicker anti-roll bar, and brakes that provide strong and fairly fade-free stopping power, all help keep everything under control.

Roaring through tight French turns, the chassis pulled together in ways that is alien to the hard-riding Polo GTI. This Pug’s casual all-round ability is its engineering team’s greatest achievement.

Of course, we have to experience the 208 GTi on Australian roads to reach a definitive verdict, especially as we tested the car on a home turf advantage.

But even after hours of apex-clipping dashes between splendid mountain roads, we still wanted more, with barely a muscle ache to show for it.

So on first acquaintance, we have come away mightily excited about the reborn Peugeot hot hatch.

After years of disappointing 206s and 207s, the 208’s downsizing drive has finally delivered an upsized delight. August cannot come soon enough for girl/boy racers everywhere.

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